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Archive for the ‘Lynne Olson’ Category

Well, we’ve reached the end of a year I would rather not repeat.  But, despite its challenges, it did hold some amazing moments.  I had the chance to travel widely and experience things I’d been dreaming of for years, and, best of all, I became an aunt.  There is nothing so hopeful as welcoming a new life into a family and it was a very cheering way to see out the year.

It wasn’t a spectacular reading year for me (too many comfort reads and too little quality during the first half of the year, certainly) but there were still plenty of stellar titles to choose from.  Here are the ten that really stood out:

10. For the Glory (2016) – Duncan Hamilton
This excellent biography of Eric Liddell, the Olympic runner and Christian missionary who was immortalised in Chariots of Fire, was the first book I read in 2017 and remained one of my favourites.  Hamilton, a sports journalist, is a clear and thorough biographer, and does full justice to a fascinating and inspiring life.

9. Browsings (2015) – Michael Dirda
An enthusiastic and eclectic collection of pieces Dirda wrote about the books he loves, his immense love of used book stores (and hours spent therein), and other things sure to delight passionate readers.

8. The Bear and the Nightingale (2017) – Katherine Arden
Sweltering in a Tuscan summer, I read this beautiful fantasy novel and escaped to the cool world of medieval Russia, a place where magic and fairy tales all come to life in the most suspenseful way.  I adored it, quickly read the sequel which came out this month, and am already eager for the final book in the trilogy (which is being released in August).

7. Felicity – Stands By (1928) – Richmal Crompton
About as far from great literature as you can get, these humorous stories about the adventures of sixteen-year old Felicity brightened up a relatively difficult point in my life.  They are bubbly and fun and a welcome reminder that Crompton could be both those things (and not just the author of needlessly repetitive and melodramatic family tales).

6. The Way of Wanderlust (2015) – Don George
In a year full of both travel and travel reading, this collection of Don George’s writing was a wonderful inspiration.

5. The Snow Child (2012) – Eowyn Ivey
Ivey’s second novel, To the Bright Edge of the World, was one of my favourite books of 2016.  This year, I finally picked up her first novel and found it just as wonderful and captivating.  Inspired the story of the Snow Maiden, Ivey weaves a magical story of a struggling, childless couple living in the Alaskan wilderness and their love for the girl who appears from nowhere one wintery day.  It is beautifully told and shockingly perfect for a first novel.

4. The Coast of Bohemia (1950) – Edith Pargeter
A travelogue about a 1948 trip to Czechoslovakia by a woman best known for writing mystery novels (under her pen name of Ellis Peters) might not appeal to everyone but for me this book was wonderful.  Pargeter’s love of all things Czech makes her a passionate observer of the customs and places she sees.  I loved seeing the country and its people through her eyes and getting to experience a time long past through her excellent record of it.

3. Last Hope Island (2017) – Lynne Olson
An extraordinarily entertaining and enlightening look at the contributions made to the Allied war effort by the occupied countries whose governments and monarchs were living in exile in London.  It is packed full of facts, interesting characters, and devastatingly caustic quotes about de Gaulle (naturellement, everyone hates de Gaulle).  After Felicity – Stands By, this was the most enjoyable reading experience I had all year.

2. The Marches (2016) – Rory Stewart
I started reading this because I knew it was about Stewart’s journeys on foot around the English-Scottish border as he attempted to make sense of the centuries old divide between the two countries ahead of the Scottish independence vote – a fascinating project I was keen to learn more about.  But Stewart takes that journey and weaves into it the story of his own extraordinary (Scottish) father.  The result is a very wonderful and affectionate love letter that left me deeply moved.

1. Moon Tiger (1987) – Penelope Lively
I finally read Lively’s Booker prize winner and it is a masterpiece.  Technically dazzling, Lively plays with her favourite themes of love, history, and, above all, memory as septuagenarian Claudia lies on her deathbed and looks back on her life.  If I could write, this would be how I’d want to do it.  As I can’t, this is exactly what I want to read – again and again and again.

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Fun and World War Two history books don’t always go together.  Happily, in Last Hope Island by Lynne Olson they do.  Olson, always an entertaining writer with a talent for unearthing entertaining tidbits, has written widely about the war before, including books on Polish airmen, Churchill’s ascent to power, and American support for the war (prior to their belated joining).  Now, I think she has found her most interesting subject to date: the contributions made (and too often overlooked) by occupied countries to the war effort.

Olson focuses on the countries with, from early in the war, London-based governments in exile.  These countries are (in order of Nazi occupation): Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France.  While much has been written about Poland, France, and, to some extent, the Netherlands, it’s wonderful to see some of the smaller countries examined in detail and to have the focus shifted to not just what was done to them and for them but by them.

Olson begins the books with stories of escape, telling how governments and monarchs fled as the Nazis poured into their countries.  It is stirring stuff and I was in tears multiple times in just the first 50 pages of the book over the angst of patriotic King Haakon of Norway and Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands who hated leaving behind their people, knowing how they would suffer.   Queen Wilhelmina had to be tricked into leaving the Netherlands, so determined was she to stay.  I don’t envy the men who were tasked with that job.  After all, she is the woman of whom Winston Churchill remarked “the only man on earth I fear is Queen Wilhelmina!”  She sounds deeply formidable and exactly the right woman for the time.  But while she may have struck fear into Churchill’s heart, she loved and was equally loved by her people: whenever a Dutch citizen escaped to England, she insisted on meeting them and often invited them to have tea at her home.  And her people at home did what they could to reach out to her, too.  When John Hackett, a British parachutist who had been captured after the Battle of Arnhem but was rescued by the Dutch resistance (a story told in beautiful detail in his memoir, I Was a Stranger, and recounted here by Olson), escaped and returned to Britain, he brought with him a letter for the queen from the three elderly Dutch women who had risked their lives to shelter him.

Both those monarchs and their governments were welcomed to London; other heads of government fared less well.  Edvard Beneš, who had been Prime Minster of Czechoslovakia until he was forced to resign after the British-signed Munich Agreement, had been living in exile since the Nazis invaded his country in 1938 and quickly established a London-based government in exile.  However, it took until 1941 for the UK to recognize the government.  And as for Charles de Gaulle, one of the most entertaining things about this deeply entertaining book may be the many references I group under the title “Everyone hates de Gaulle” – a rich and fruitful vein.  My favourite, and too good not to share, was: “His unofficial motto, in the words of one observer, was ‘Extreme weakness requires extreme intransigence.’”  De Gaulle grew into his role and proved useful eventually but was never well-liked.

The tangible contributions made by each of these occupied countries varied.  The Norwegians had been able to get most of their fleet to Britain and it was these ships – more than 1,000 – that helped ferry food across the Atlantic to keep Britain fed.  The Czechs, whose military strongholds had been taken over by the Nazis in 1938, had little to contribute but 5,000 servicemen did manage to escape, first to Poland, then to France, and finally, after it too fell, to Britain.  Along the way they joined almost 30,000 Polish servicemen.  Seasoned after fighting in Poland and France, and significantly older than the new British recruits, it was the Polish airmen who would soon become the toast of London after their spectacular performance during the Battle of Britain:

…it was the Poles, with their hand kissing and penchant for sending flowers, who won the greatest reputations as gallants.  John Colville, one of Churchill’s private secretaries, once asked a woman friend, the daughter of an earl, what it was like to serve as a WAAF driver for Polish officers.  ‘Well,’ she replied, ‘I have to say “Yes, sir” all day, and “No, sir,” all night.’  The head of a British girls’ school made headlines when she admonished the graduating class about the pitfalls of life in the outside world, ending her speech with ‘And remember, keep away from gin and Polish airmen.’

What emerges strongly is the incredible contributions made by the Poles.  Anyone who has read about the Battle for Britain or codebreaking is probably already aware of the vital role Poles played in these areas but Olson goes deeper and her discussion of the value of the vast and trustworthy Polish intelligence service is excellent.  Intelligence had been one of the country’s priorities prior to the war – a history of being fought over between Germany and Russia had taught them the importance of knowing their enemies’ plans.  An estimated 16,000 Poles were involved in intelligence gathering in occupied Poland and, in addition to that, more were active outside of their country as well, sending information to London from: Austria, Germany, France, Scandinavia, the Baltic States, Switzerland, Italy, Belgium, the Balkans and North Africa.  And as Poles, classed as sub-humans by the Nazis, were sent to work as slave labour in the Reich, they sent intelligence reports from the factories there as well, giving the Allies valuable information about munitions production.

The problem then became how intelligence was used.  The chilling incompetence of British intelligence during the war is a story I have come across many times before but is always horrifying.  The way agents were run in occupied countries can only be called reckless and the siloing of information was ridiculous, with SOE running each nation’s network independently – of both other departments and the nations’ exiled governments.  The Poles, thank god, along with the Czechs were the only exceptions and were allowed to:

Operate their own training establishments, codes, ciphers, and radio networks without MI6 control, with the proviso that they pass on all intelligence relevant to the Allied war effort.

The Poles and the Czechs were often parcelled together in the minds of their British hosts, despite having very little in common.  (By the way, Olson’s frequent reference to them as “eastern European nations” is the only thing that jarred me in this book.  Once and for all everyone: they are in central Europe.  If in doubt, look at the goddamn map.  End rant.)  More importantly, they each KNEW they had nothing in common with their neighbour:

The romantic, emotional Poles tended to disparage the Czechs for what they perceived as their neighbours’ dullness and industriousness.  “The Czechs seem to the Poles solid, heavy people, much like liver dumplings,” A.J. Liebling noted in the New Yorker in 1942.  For their part, the Czechs regarded the Poles as arrogant, foolhardy, autocratic, and suicidally reckless.

The “sober, sensible, middle-class” Czechs viewed themselves as “focused on hard work” and, unlike their Polish neighbours, “shied away from flashy heroics.”  Poles, on the other hand, were “polar opposites…hotheaded and rebellious by temperament, they repeatedly rose up, particularly against the Russians and just as repeatedly were crushed.”

What they did have in common was the complete irrelevance of their futures to the Western allied powers.  Russia, who absorbed a shocking 95% of the total wartime casualties suffered by the Big Three (UK, USA, and Russia), needed to be appeased.  Churchill, to his credit, did feel some guilt at signing Poland over to Russia – Roosevelt felt none.  The Czechs, who had never had any ties to Russia but were afraid of being handed over in the same way as the Poles, tried to make a deal of their own, which backfired spectacularly even before the war was done:

Acting more like conquerors than liberators, [the Russians] treated the Czechs, their supposed friends and allies, in much the same ruthless manner they were now treating the citizens of the collapsed Third Reich.  Eyewitness accounts reported widespread rape and drunkenness, wholesale looting, and wanton destruction of property.

Beneš was never forgiven by his people for making that deal, but it is difficult to see any better outcome.  Although the Allies benefited hugely from the contributions of the central European countries, they never learned to value or respect them.  Britain, always suspicious of Europeans, remained so even as those Europeans did all they could to win the war.  Field Marshal Montgomery, hero of North Africa and the man in charge of all land forces on D-Day, exemplified the typical disinterest of his nation:

Montgomery, whose command included thousands of European troops, was particularly noted for his lack of knowledge of and regard for them.  Once, during a visit to a Polish division in his army, he asked its commander whether Poles spoke to one another in Russian or German.  He was stunned to learn they had their own language.

What Olson does so well here is manage to illustrate how difficult it was for the British hosts to imagine, nevermind respond to, the challenges facing occupied Europe.  In the occupied countries, people were murdered and starved, millions were left homeless, infrastructure was destroyed, and all sense of individualism, the ability to chose your future was taken away.  In Britain (and even more so in Allied countries outside of Europe), it was a mildly dangerous but primarily thrilling event taking place at some distance:

To the Europeans, World War II was a cataclysm that must never happen again.  To the British, who had suffered neither invasion nor occupation, it was one of the proudest periods of their country’s history – a “moment of national reconciliation and rallying together, rather than a corrosive rent in the fabric of state and nation.”

In too many history books (and especially novels), this is still the case.  Olson lays bare the incompetence and xenophobia that greeted the leaders of the occupied nations in London, shows how they were ignored and distrusted despite their contributions, and, ultimately, forgotten in favour a narrative that focused on the official Allied saviours and conveniently swept aside those allies (Poland, in particular) sacrificed for “the greater good”.  But she manages to make it wonderfully enjoyable along the way, a true accomplishment and tribute to the men and women whose achievements should be remembered.

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